Thai Politics: 15 years in 1500 words

Disclaimer: this article aims to compile a balanced view of events before and after the 2014 military coup in order to provide some context the media struggles to convey.

In 2001, Chuan Leekpai was beaten by a new party (Thaksin Shinawatra’s party) in the general election because of his unpopular austerity economic measures following a financial crisis in his administration. Thaksin introduced populist policies – a political ideology that appeals to the interests of the general people, contrasting to interests of the elite – known as ‘thaskinomics’, which aimed to improve living standards of rural people. Despite the economy growing by 4% during Chuan Leekpai’s last year in power, the introduction of ‘thaksinomics’ was commonly seen as the start of Thailand’s financial recovery from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Late in his first term, he created a ‘War on Drugs’ programme, which resulted in over 2000 extrajudicial killingspersecuted of Muslim protestors; and was responsible for the Krue Se and Tak Bai incidents where there were “deaths of at least 86 demonstrators in Narathiwat’s Tak Bai district, most of whom suffocated after being piled into the back of trucks to be transported to army camps many miles away” in the South of Thailand. However, whilst much of the rural population in the North and North East benefitted from his populist policies, after his reelection in 2005 in an unprecedented landslide, he declared that he would only help those who voted for him. Since the majority of the South of Thailand voted against him, they were neglected throughout his administration.

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In 2006, during his second term, large protests erupted due to the public’s discontent with Thaksin and his methods of governing Thailand. Thaksin was removed by a military coup and exiled following to reports of alleged corruption. His use of populist policies included a policy of allowing state-owned banks to increase loans to poor farmers. Thaksin encouraged this policy as it further satisfied his promise to help the rural population, and this triggered a dramatic increase in consumer indebtedness, which further led to public debt. Further frustration arose, as the public believed he was evading taxes. When he sold a share of Shin Corp, one of Thailand’s biggest telecom groups, making him and his family $1.9bn (£1.21bn) and it was believed that the large amount of money made was also due to tax evasions. These reasons combined led to the 2006 protests and military coup. Later in 2010, the Supreme Court has stripped his family of $1.4bn (£910m) in contested assets following allegations of corruption and power abuse.

In December 2007, a general election was called and again, Thaksin’s party won. However, it was a new representative, Samak, that was made prime minister. The Supreme Court then found him guilty of conflict of interest: his wife was buying land from the bank of Thailand. He was sentenced to two years in prison. In late 2008, the Supreme Court then proceeded to disband Thaksin’s party, a new vote was taken in parliament, and because of defections within Thaksin’s party, there was a democratic majority in parliament. Abhisit Vejjajive, a member of the Democratic Party, was then appointed Prime Minister. As a result, Thaksin supporters protested against this, as he was not elected by the people. Further protests erupted following the 201o Supreme Court decision of stripping Thaksin’s assets. The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the “Red Shirts”, who supported Thaksin, organised protests on the 14th March with demand for new elections. Although initially peaceful protests, on the 8th of April, a state of emergency was declared after protests turned violent. After approximately 90 casualties and hundreds injured, protests ended. In May 2011, Abhisit dissolved the house and called for general elections to take place that July.

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In the 2011 elections, Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, won. With no political background or knowledge, her inexperience led to failures in policies such as the rice scheme: although theoretically a good idea, it was widely criticised for its naivety, as not only is rice perishable – therefore as rice was stockpiled, its quality deteriorated and lowered its price – but also other countries such as India and Vietnam had had a good year of rice production when the scheme was introduced, these countries managed to fill the gap Thailand had left by stockpiling. However, this was not the worst that Thailand has faced.

In the autumn of 2013, Yingluck proposed a blanket Amnesty bill, which would have pardoned several politicians from charges they have faced since 2004. This would have allowed all of Thaksin’s corruption, abuse of power, and murder charges to be wiped clean and permit his return to Thailand. The People’s Democratic Reforms Committee (PDRC), a new party led by Suthep, who had prior attachments to Abhisit’s party, began to protest against Yingluck and the Amnesty bill. The PDRC consisted mainly of people from the South and Bangkok’s middle class and elites and demanded an unelected ‘people’s council’, free of corruption. In December 2013, Yingluck decided to call for elections in February 2014, but the protests had not stopped and therefore prevented the elections from happening. These peaceful protests continued for approximately 6 months, which contained violent incidents and clashes, resulted in another military coup led by General Prayuth Chan Ocha.

In May 2014, General Prayuth imposed Martial Law and appointed himself interim Prime Minister. Following this, there was, and still is, a rise of student led Anti-Coup protests demanding a democracy and free elections. While the coup itself had been bloodless, there has been a lot of symbolic protests against the coup. Students have protested by staging public readings of the dystopian novel 1984 and eating sandwiches. 1984, written by George Orwell, depicts a world of totalitarian rule and explores issues such as nationalism, propaganda, censorship, and mass surveillance. Other protests include the use of the three-finger Hunger Games salute at cinemas in November, resulting in the students being arrested under Section 44 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand, which allows The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), led by General Prayuth, to issue any order to promote “love and harmony amongst the people in the nation” and prevent “abatement or suppression of any act detrimental to national order and security”. Unlike previous protests, as the current government drafts a new constitution to be put in place, there have been no mass organised movements, however, there continues to be public calls for the principles to be more relaxed and demonstrations against the coup in small numbers using symbolic means.

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The NCPO reacted accordingly; they quickly banned 1984 and the three finger salute, provided that there are anti coup motives. Several student activists booked the screening at the Scala Cinema in Siam Square, a popular entertainment area in the city center, with the intention of redistributing the ticket for free in an act of protest. As a result, Scala withdrew all showings for the film. At Paragon cinema complex, also in Siam Square, screenings have proceeded with extensive military presence after three students were arrested for performing the three-finger salute.

It is also important to note that the general atmosphere within the country is calm and these protests are sporadic.

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Amnesty International has made claims stating that the NCPO violated human rights, all of which the party has rejected. Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director, said, “three months since the coup, a picture emerges from our investigations of widespread and far-reaching human rights violations perpetrated by the military government”. Amnesty International then produced a report on human rights violations in Thailand since the martial law was imposed in May, including the NCPO’s use of censorship and the suppression of the right to public assembly and free expression. The Human Rights Watch has also turned attention to the situation in Thailand: “Respect for fundamental freedoms and democracy in Thailand under military rule has fallen into an apparently bottomless pit,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Six months after the coup, critics are systematically prosecuted, political acitivities are banned, media is censored, and dissidents are tried in military courts.”

While the NCPO had promised general elections in October 2015, it has recently been reported that the general elections have been postponed to 2016. There continues to be uncertainty to whether the NCPO can stick to the timetable provided for general elections.

Without a doubt, the military coup had been necessary in restoring peace from the unrest between 2013-2014, and it has been successful in achieving that to a certain extent, as although there continues to be intermittent, student-led, symbolic protests against the coup, life in Thailand resumes as normal. Ultimately, democratic ways of governing will return to Thailand, and whether the General Prayuth and his interim government can restore the balance between political stability and the citizens’ contentment will be the deciding factor of whether the military coup had been successful.

Written by Mint Kovavisarach

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